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Friday, Jul 25, 2014

Tampa Bay area gallery owner reaches out to students in Nepal

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ST PETERSBURG -

The jagged highlands of Nepal are about as far as you can get from the lofty mansions and manicured lawns of South Tampa or the glistening high rises of downtown St. Petersburg.

Nevertheless, Rob Rowen, owner of Nuance Galleries in Tampa and St. Petersburg, has managed to bridge the obscure landlocked nation to the shores of Tampa Bay.

The photographer, former electric company owner and honorary ambassador to U.S. Central Command, has been using his dumbfounding number of connections in recent years to feed and educate nearly 2,000 Nepalese children in a remote, poverty-stricken region called Chitwan.

His charity, Global Action Coalition, provides food, backpacks, school supplies and shoes to children in Grades 1-5 at 15 schools, many of whom hike for hours over rugged terrain to get to school.

As a way of celebrating his 60th birthday next week, Rowen is hosting two benefits for the cause, one at each of his galleries. In Tampa, he will host a benefit at Love’s Artifacts, 4914 S. MacDill Ave., on April 23. The St. Petersburg event is from 5 to 8 p.m. April 26 at his gallery, at 2924 Central Ave.

Rowen said he’s always been drawn to international causes. Nepal first caught his eye four years ago through his work as a volunteer liaison at Central Command, where he helps visiting coalition officers serving at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa get acclimated to their surroundings.

Work with Central Command helped Rowen make friends from faraway places, including a Nepalese officer who told him how bad things were back home and how much education needed to improve for things to change. Soon after, Rowen connected with Hemu Adhikari, a Nepalese immigrant living in Tampa, who was already sending books to schoolchildren in the remote hills of Chitwan.

“Some of these children come to school with little or no clothes on their body,” Adhikari said.

In 2009, Rowen and Adhikari formed the Global Action Coalition and began collecting donations. Money poured in from an array of sources, from wealthy South Tampa types to local schoolchildren collecting spare change in water jugs.

This year’s budget is about $20,000, but it doesn’t take much for the all-volunteer nonprofit to operate, Rowen said.

“You can feed a kid for 15-20 cents a day,” he said.

Feeding is a key part of the work. Global Action Coalition serves lunch at the 13 schools where it works.

“If you feed them, they will come to school,” Rowen said.

Otherwise, students might not show up – or eat that day.

What’s on the menu? Satu: a porridge-like dish made of maize, wheat, chickpeas and soybeans.

The dish may not appeal to most Western palates, but Rowen said attendance at one of the schools has nearly doubled since they began serving it.

The toughest challenge in supplying students with what they need can be getting to them.

Flying from Tampa to Kathmandu takes 33 or 37 hours, one-way. From there, Chitwan is a bumpy day-long ride on a bus that’s not air-conditioned. The rest of the trip is made on foot. Hiking to the villages Rowen’s charity works in can take another six hours, depending on how far in the hills they’re located.

Rowen recalls taking his boots off to cross nearly a dozen streams on the way to one village.

“It’s a grueling, grueling trip,” he said.

“I come back physically drained.”

Rowen has made the trek twice but checks up on the project through local contacts. Adhikari also goes once a year.

Global Action Coalition has been working on adding grade levels at more remote schools that may only go up through fourth or fifth grade. At some schools, they’ve added sixth and seventh grades with the hope of either eventually offering high school coursework or sending interested kids to schools in the region that do.

“We don’t want the kids to get an education and go back to working millet and rice fields like they did generations ago,” Rowen said.

The nonprofit also aims to go beyond hunger and education. The group tries to source all of its materials from Nepalese manufacturers to help the local economy – something nonprofits have often neglected to consider.

“Some groups will try to ship stuff from here instead of buy it from the region,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of Chicago-based Charity Watch. “So it is possible for well-intentioned groups to actually hurt areas.”

Also, backpacks, grain and the like get heavy on a long hike up a mountain.

“The only things I bring over are light, donated things I can carry,” Rowen said.

So far, more than a dozen volunteers have traveled with the group on their own dime to help out. Dennis Myers, the former head of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the Global Action Coalition board, said he’s planning on going over in October.

“It’s just little old us doing something for 1,800 kids,” he said. “I’m proud of what I do.”

He said he often gets asked why the group doesn’t support local causes.

“My answer to that is always the same: There are resources here,” Myers said. “Those kids in Nepal, there are no resources. There are huts made of dirt. In some cases the pencil or the pen we send over can often be the only one they have.”

That’s part of the reason why Sari Deitche, a science teacher at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, thinks her students benefit from being involved with the cause. Each year, her students collect loose change in water jugs that is donated to Global Action Coalition. The first year it collected about $1,000 – months’ worth of lunches for a Nepalese school.

“Our students were blown away by that,” she said. “They start to realize how much they have.”

Rowen and Adhikari hope to expand into other parts of the country and to bring young doctors to the area to set up medical clinics.

“It will take a long time, but small things make a difference,” Adhikari said. “I’m really glad I can do this much.”


kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

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